Wesley Williams, the hip-hop MC known as Maestro Fresh-Wes, in 1989 made an independent demo of a danceable rap that he called Let Your Backbone Slide. His act caught the attention of the New York label LMR (Lefrak-Moelis Records); recognizing its potential, they signed Williams to an album deal that led to the ground-breaking “Symphony in Effect” album.
Produced by Anthony Davis and Peter Davis at Don Valley Sounds in Markham, Ont., the album and its lead single Let Your Backbone Slide (Attic ATT 2005 1989) both became history-making hits: the gold single being the first Canadian hip-hop Top 40 hit, and the album going platinum – the first time an album by a Black Canadian had reached that level.
With hefty radio play and MuchMusic airing Williams’s video, Let Your Backbone Slide rocketed to a double No. 1: it was No. 1 on RPM’s Dance/Urban Music chart for three weeks in February 1990, where it topped Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and 2 Live Crew, and No. 1 on the Canadian Content chart; and it was No. 10 on the Top Singles chart at the end of March.
In the U.S., Let Your Backbone Slide rose to No. 14 on Billboard’s Rap Singles chart.
As Maestro Fresh-Wes told an interviewer, “As it turned out, we didn’t just make a record, we made history; and that was a beautiful thing. I was just that guy at that particular time.”
The single featured danceable funk and R&B rhythm tracks sampled from James Brown, Public Enemy, and other artists, and a title borrowed from rocker Billy Squier’s The Stroke. Explained Williams, “I told my producers, I want a song that embodies this phrase. It’s gotta be funky and it’s gotta be hard. I wanted something that people would listen to and would immediately know that we were about to do something big down in Canada. Something that really represented us and said I’m not American.”
The recording’s attention-getting opening was the result:
“This is a throw-down, a showdown
Hell no, I can't slow down!”
Williams’s skilful employment of improvisational word-play and rhyme led to an avalanche of awards and nominations: the album won the first Juno for Best Rap Recording (1991), the video earned MuchMusic’s award for Best Rap Video 1990 and a Juno nomination, and the single earned Juno nominations for Single of the Year and Best Dance Recording.
As if this wasn’t enough, a 1998 re-mix of Let Your Backbone Slide reached No. 4 on RPM’s Dance/Urban chart, behind Stars on 54’s recording of If You Could Read My Mind, written by Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Gordon Lightfoot.
Let Your Backbone Slide quickly found its way onto compilation albums such as “Enter the Rap Zone!”, “Rap Traxx 3,” and “It’s a Rap,” and has been sampled often for electronic dance music.
In 2017, Let Your Backbone Slide was honoured with the SOCAN Classic award.
Williams is justifiably proud that his recording opened the door for internationally successful Canadian recording artists like Drake and The Weeknd: “We were just in the right place at the right time…. I’m proud that this was the first Canadian hip hop single to ever go gold, how cool is that…. I’m one of the reasons why they implemented the best rap recording of the year category at the Junos so I’m very proud of that as well.”
Wesley Williams (Maestro Fresh Wes), known as “the godfather of Canadian hip hop,” was born in Toronto in 1968. Before becoming a solo act, he was one half of the duo Vision Crew, and opened for the Beastie Boys. A multiple Juno winner who has been nominated over a dozen times, he recorded eight solo albums. He is also a Gemini-nominated actor.